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Knox’s Little Secret

Knox’s Little Secret
Illinois liberal arts college succeeds in hiring, retaining African American facultyA recent nationwide survey reported that, among universities, New York’s Columbia University and, among colleges, Pennsylvania’s Haverford College had the highest percentages of African American faculty in the nation, with 4.3 percent and 7.9 percent, respectively.
But there’s another institution that has both schools beat by a country mile: Knox College, a tiny liberal arts college of just over 1,000 students located in Galesburg, Ill., 300 miles west of Chicago. At Knox, 9.4 percent of the tenured faculty are African American — a rate that’s “incredible for a school like this,” says Dr. Lawrence Breitborde, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college.
Knox officials watched with bemusement as college and university wire services exploded with angst — or self-congratulation — with the release of the nationwide survey earlier this year, which was conducted by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. For example: Concern was the watchword at Brown University, which gained a fifth-place ranking on the survey. “It’s nice that Brown is at the top, but it’s a bit fortuitous,” Dr. William Crossgrove, associate dean of the faculty, told the Brown Daily Herald. “It doesn’t reflect huge numbers of Black faculty.” Indeed, African Americans represented 3.7 percent of Brown’s faculty and 4.1 percent of its tenured faculty.
At places like Bates College and Emory University, meanwhile, success with small numbers sparked celebration. Both campus Web sites crowed over the schools’ respective third- and second-place rankings on the college and university lists, even though the numbers involved were quite small. At Emory, 3.9 percent of tenured faculty were Black; at Bates, the rate was 6.9 percent.
Schools that weren’t on the list, meanwhile, suddenly found themselves facing questions as to why. At Indiana’s Ball State University, for example, a local newspaper pointed out that just 13, or 1.5 percent, of the school’s 836 full-time faculty were Black. Dr. Michael Stevenson, the psychology professor who heads the school’s three-year-old diversity policy initiative, told the central Indiana Star-Press: “That is an area we will be working on very hard in the next few years.”
Knox, which was not listed on the survey, achieved its milestone by granting tenure to four African American faculty members in a single year: Dr. Caesar Akuetey, who teaches French, and Dr. Jessie Dixon, who teaches Spanish, in the modern languages department; Dr. Konrad Hamilton in the history department; and Dr. Magali Roy-Fequiere in the gender and women’s studies department. All are now associate professors.
“This is a school that really emphasizes coalition building and dialogue between people of color,” says Roy-Fequiere. “They really understand here that the work force of the 21st century will be multicultural. It’s something we have embraced in the last 10 years in the way we market the school both regionally and nationally. A lot of the kids that come here, from Chicago or from farming families, are really drawn by the ethos of the school, that this is a place where cultural racial diversity will be explored.”
What that means on the ground is that “in my Chicana literature course, there are a lot of Black women and Black men. There really is a dialogue that we have created here,” says Roy-
And while it’s true that the numbers involved are small — five tenured Black faculty out of 59 total, and 10 faculty members of color out of 92 full-time faculty members — it’s also true that many much larger schools would have trouble duplicating the feat.
Breitborde stresses that the lion’s share of the credit rightly goes to the individual faculty members, for their hard work and commitment to succeeding in a difficult career path. But one can’t help but wonder what Knox’s secret might be. That is to say, how does the school both attract and retain African American faculty, given that it has few natural advantages — it’s not a large research university located in a large, diverse urban center, or even in a smaller town with a large Black population.
It should be noted that Knox does have a historic connection to African Americans that many schools do not share. It was founded in 1837 by abolitionists, according to Breitborde. As at Oberlin College in Ohio, the founders were quite explicit in their intention that the school was to be open to students of any background. And it even served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, a fact that may account for Galesburg’s small but active Black population.
But far more important than all this, adds Breitborde, is the role that has been played by Dr. Fred Hord, the director of Knox College’s Black Studies program. “Fred is at the center of all (that we’ve achieved) as a senior faculty member. He was instrumental in all our hires. And while it’s taken some institutional leadership,” — particularly from Dr. John McCall, a past president of the school who renewed the university’s commitment to its historic roots — “leadership wouldn’t matter unless the faculty understood” the seriousness of the university’s commitment to increasing faculty diversity, Breitborde explains.
Hord, who came to Knox College partly to be close to a sick father, is amused as he thinks of his encounters with African American faculty around the country. “I get kidded a lot,” he chuckles. “‘Hord, you’re in the wasteland there — how do you do it?’, they say. And I thought to myself, ‘I will stay here as long as it takes my father to recover.’ But it’s been 14 years — since 1988.” And in that time, Hord and Knox College together have put together an impressive string of achievements.
Indeed, the year after Hord arrived at Knox, he founded the Association of Black Cultural Centers, which today represents more than 200 centers, sponsors regional and national conferences and produces newsletters and a national status report (see Black Issues, Feb. 14). In addition, Hord has created a model Black studies program at Knox. It offers both a major and a minor, and its 32 courses are more than any other college its size in the nation, according to the National Council for Black Studies.
Knox offers several faculty perquisites that are equal to — or superior to — that of schools that are much larger and much richer. For example, there is a great deal of cooperation among the Black, women’s, Latin American and international studies programs. Knox also offers travel and research support in order to encourage publication. Indeed, notes Hord, the newly minted associate professor Dixon has just returned from a year in Spain, while Akuetey heads up the Knox College program in France.
“And we do publish — articles, books of poetry, books of criticism — even though we are a teaching college,” Hord adds. “I’ve just completed my sixth book and Magali (Roy-Fequiere) has her first under contract with Temple University Press. We have a community that shares ideas. There’s that kind of spirit.”
Lastly, in terms of faculty retention, Hord says he can’t stress enough the freedom faculty are given in crafting their course offerings. “Having taught at Howard and other large schools, that flexibility is really important. You’re told up front you have to do your service courses, but if you develop an interest, you’re allowed to explore that.”
So in a nutshell: commitment, follow-up and a determination to give your hires what they need to succeed. It seems a simple enough formula, if one that — given the fact that there are only around 500 tenured African American faculty in the nation — few schools appear to be able to follow. 

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